Ethics @ Work: Speciesism: Humans really are special

It is precisely because humans feel a profound affinity for earth's natural environment that we have a responsibility to preserve and cultivate it.

enviornment 88 (photo credit: )
enviornment 88
(photo credit: )
Recently, in another forum, I wrote a series of articles on the topic of animal suffering. I presented a traditional Jewish view of the matter, which is based on the Biblical idea that man, who alone is created in the divine image, has dominion over the animals and therefore may exploit them for his use. But since animals are also G-d's creatures, and since we owe them a debt of gratitude for the service they provide us, we are forbidden to treat them cruelly. This implies a fairly mainstream view of animal rights and accords well with even the most stringent animal-rights legislation, which uniformly permits the use of animals for important human needs, even if suffering is involved. For the sake of comparison, Immanuel Kant taught that animals have no rights at all, and that cruelty to animals is unethical only because it engenders cruelty toward people (an unproven proposition, though there is certainly a correlation). Even the renowned champion of animal rights, philosopher Peter Singer, acknowledges that since mankind has a higher level of sensitivity and rationality, strict utilitarian considerations permit proportionate use of animals. My articles generated a remarkable amount of negative feedback. Many readers were offended by the idea that we are entitled to have animals serve us, and some accused me of "speciesism," a term coined on the example of "racism." In the ethics literature, this particular crime is often called "anthropocentrism" (people-centeredness). It is this charge I would like to address. The enemies of speciesism are led by the "deep ecology" movement, which asserts that all life on earth has inherent value irrespective of its value to humans. They claim that humans have no right to harm other life forms beyond what is necessary for our survival. They also object to the term "environment," an anthropocentric phrase that means "that which surrounds humans." For my part, I believe that "deep ecology" is the most extreme anthropocentric position of all. They posit that it's OK for every other species on the planet to be busy worrying about its own survival, but that the human race alone is obligated to worry about the survival of all other species. This is contrasted with a human-centered ethic that asserts that we as humans should give first priority to human values, just as other species pursue their own well-being. We can see from this that humanism is much different than racism, because ethical opposition to racism makes equal demands of all races to abandon discrimination, whereas opponents of humanism make demands on humans only. Anthropocentrism finds its way into deep ecology in an additional, more fundamental way. What on earth is so special about life on earth? Why does it have more "inherent value" than rocks or galaxies? Here is a little thought experiment. Imagine we find an asteroid in the solar system on course to collide with earth and destroy all life forms in a period of two years. That is enough time to design and launch a missile that will destroy the asteroid at a safe distance. Should we do it? Deep ecology seems to imply we should. After all, all those endangered owls and polar bears (and people, too) have inherent value. But doesn't the asteroid have inherent value, too? What right do we have to destroy it? The only "objective" reason I can think of to assign a polar bear more "inherent value" than an asteroid is that we human beings adore polar bears and are indifferent, at best, to swirling rocks. Note also the other dimension of anthropocentrism here. I promise you that if an asteroid approaches earth, the polar bears will not lift a paw to deflect it and save humanity. The deep ecology advocates will not even demand this most basic level of reciprocity. Deep ecology places ethical responsibilities on only one species - mankind - without giving mankind any kind of special rights. That doesn't mean that ecology is not important. On the contrary. It is precisely because we as humans feel a profound affinity for earth's existing wildlife and natural environment that we have a responsibility to preserve and cultivate it. But it is not realistic or even logically consistent for human beings to adopt an ethical system that does not have a special place for humanity. Humans have no reason to apologize for a human-centered ethical orientation - and even if we did, there would be no one to accept our apology. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).